You’ll need a Dramamine to get through this dramedy.
By Teresa Blythe
Jesus has a regular gig on a new prime-time network show—“The Book of Daniel.” He rides around in the car with Rev. Daniel Webster, ribbing the Vicodin-addicted Episcopal priest and tossing out an occasional witty truism like, “Life is hard for everyone—that’s why there’s such a nice reward at the end of it.” Unfortunately, about the deepest theological question this new show featuring the Son of God offers us is: Do we want a warm-fuzzy TV-friendly Jesus?
In the New Testament Jesus is quite the agitator, either by word or deed. He turns social order on its head, advising the wealthy to part with their accumulation of goods so that the poor can have the basics. But Daniel’s Jesus (Garret Dillahunt)—at least in the first two episodes—doesn’t talk about wealth, or the reign of God. He doesn’t heal or pray or refer to the Beatitudes. He’s just a jolly wise guy along for the ride.
“The Book of Daniel” is billed as “dramedy,” and it has the feel of a campy soap opera—“Desperate Housewives” meets “Six Feet Under” meets “The Sopranos.” And let’s not forget “Seventh Heaven,” that long-running heart-warmer about a minister and his family, though “The Book of Daniel” is more like “Seventh Hell.” The Webster clan, headed by Daniel (Aidan Quinn) has more personal problems than the Fishers, Sopranos, or the gals of Wisteria Lane combined: his wife is a lush; he’s hooked on pain pills, which he doesn’t mind handing out like candy to his supervising Bishop (Ellen Burstyn); his daughter is selling dope; his uptight father (another Bishop) is having an affair with his supervising Bishop; his mother has Alzheimer’s and his brother-in-law embezzled $3 million dollars in church money before getting himself killed and left in a compromising position. In an effort to find the money, Daniel calls in his friend, the Catholic priest who has “connections,” and it turns out that the church’s money (to build a school) will be returned…if he allows a Mafia-approved construction company to handle the building project. The above laundry list of woes doesn’t even mention the homosexual entanglements that are making the religious right so angry. Webster’s son is a semi-closeted gay and his sister-in-law starts up an affair with her dead husband’s secretary, all designed to stun us in some way. Fortunately, however, nothing seems to stun Jesus who has, you gotta admit, seen it all in 2,000 or so years. When Daniel stumbles on his sister-in-law’s lesbian affair, the Lord’s unimpressed reply is, “You just never know, do you?”
Well, actually, if you spend much time around clergy or churches you do know that ministers are real people, too, and that their families have real problems. So it’s not the actual problems that Daniel has that are so shocking. It’s the unrealistic number of them.
But besides all that, it’s this Jesus that is so perplexing. Daniel’s problems are, by and large, the problems of affluent Americans—designer drug dependency, acquisition and retention of wealth and image enhancement. And all Jesus has to say is “life is hard for everyone?” Why doesn’t He haul Daniel right down to the urban ghetto, or spirit him away to terrorist-shattered Iraq, or AIDS-ravaged Africa, and show him how hard life really can be? That’s the sort of Jesus I encounter in scripture.
The reason Jesus doesn’t do that on prime-time TV is because it would be too big a downer. While we delight in swallowing full doses of gruesome reality on police, medical, and legal dramas, we prefer to laugh, not cry, at religion. For “The Book of Daniel,” church—primarily upscale, white, mainline Christian church culture—is simply a backdrop for madcap drama. This series demonstrates none of the weight of the religious questions posed by “ER” from time to time, nor does it have the kind of sympathetic clergy we saw with “Nothing Sacred” in the mid 1990s. It certainly is not as reverent as “Joan of Arcadia” or even “Six Feet Under.” Watch it if you like soap operas that poke fun at rich WASPs, but don’t expect it to inspire great theological dialogue. At least not until Jesus finds his real message.
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A version of this review appeared at Presbyterians Today.
Teresa Blythe is a writer and spiritual director who lectures and conducts workshops at conferences all over the country. Her next book, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Abingdon Press), will be released in April. Her last essay for SoMA was Wrestling With the Love of God. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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